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Bruce Whitney

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Button-Up Vermont: Making energy efficiency a group effort

BRATTLEBORO—Here in Windham County, a wealth of information on energy efficiency, weatherization, and how to afford it will be presented on Button Up Day, an event in its second year that takes place on Saturday, Nov. 1.

The statewide event’s goal is to work on a “grassroots level” to “help people ‘get’ the benefits of efficiency and to stop wasting energy,” says Johanna Miller, Energy Program Director for the Vermont Natural Resources Council (VNRC).

The event at the Dummerston School runs from noon to 4 p.m.

All are invited to an afternoon of “socializing and information,” says Catie Berg of the Dummerston Energy Committee, which is planning the event.

Bruce Whitney, outreach coordinator for NeighborWorks Home Energy Assistance Team (HEAT) Squad, will present a 45-minute film on simple weatherization techniques, followed by a question-and-answer period.

At the event, Berg says, the Energy Committee “will try to get people to pledge to get an energy audit,” and experts will be on hand to help attendees “gauge their initial energy usage.”

Information will be available to show the process of “getting repairs done first,” then “having a ‘re-measure’ energy audit to see how over a few years, the money saved by lower fuel bills offsets the money spent on the audits and weatherization,” he says.

Berg says that “[a]ttendees can see the tools the energy auditors use in action, such as the blower door that measures air leaks, and the infrared cameras that see hot and cold spots” — those places where insulation is inadequate.

For those do-it-yourselfers, the program features “D.I.Y. success stories” from laypeople, and “D.I.Y. basics,” says Berg.

Certified Energy Auditors will present on such as topics as how to use a caulk gun around windows and techniques for “general slab insulation anyone can do.”

Brattleboro-based musician and educator Peter Siegel will lead a song-fest for kids and adults “on respecting nature and working for conservation,” says Berg.

The event promises snacks from Scott Farm and Grafton Village Cheese Company, kids’ activities, door prizes such as books and “energy-efficient gadgets,” and coupons for weatherization supplies from local hardware stores.

Whitney says NeighborWorks HEAT Squad, in partnership with Efficiency Vermont, helps Vermonters “save money, improve comfort, and make a difference” by offering reduced-cost home-energy audits and improvements, access to advisors and local contractors, and affordable financing and financial incentives.

The event will teach “incremental changes” that nearly anyone can make, he notes.

“I like the Dummerston event because it helps folks where they’re at,” Whitney says.

Why bother?

Nearly two thirds of the housing stock in Vermont was built prior to 1979, when building codes and energy efficiency were far from collective concerns, and thus little technology was available to achieve the latter.

In 2014, one practical goal and, for many, a moral imperative is to stop so much heat from furnaces and stoves from escaping through poorly insulated foundations, walls, and attics in aging homes.

It’s also the law.

According to Miller, “The state has a statutory goal to retrofit 80,000 homes by 2020 to reduce [both] our carbon footprint and the biggest thing in our economy: the money we spend on energy.”

In its April 2014 report, “Heating Efficiency Success Stories,” the VNRC states that energy-efficiency investments can “[p]osition Vermont as an energy-efficiency and climate-action leader. Wasted heat is one of the state’s biggest contributors to climate change.”

According to the “2010 Vermont Housing Needs Assessment: Vermont’s Housing Stock Challenges” report by the Vermont Housing Finance Association (VHFA), 56 percent of Vermont homes are heated by oil and kerosene. The national average is 8 percent.

The heating fuel for the remaining 44 percent of Vermont homes is divided among gas, electricity, wood, coal, solar, and other sources.

So much reliance on oil and kerosene in a state with long, cold winters creates a financial burden for Vermonters.

As VHFA’s report states, “The cost of natural gas and electricity is regulated by the state, while the market determines the price of fuel oil, kerosene, and propane. There is higher potential for dramatic fluctuations in prices of fuel oil because of this.”

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the price of home heating oil almost doubled between October 1990 and November 2009.

A local economic stimulus

Relying on oil and kerosene also funnels large sums of money out of the state — money that could better support local communities.

The Thermal Efficiency Task Force’s 2013 Report to the Vermont General Assembly says, “In 2010, Vermonters paid over $600 million to import and use fossil-based heating fuels. Most of this money left the Vermont economy.”

The VNRC’s report claims that “Vermont currently exports almost $1 billion out of our economy annually to pay for energy.”

As a variety of organizations assert, including the HEAT Squad and the VNRC, switching to heating options such as solar, biomass, air-source heat pumps, and wood stoves (cordwood and wood pellets) could divert millions of dollars toward these mostly locally based fuel sources.

Renewable heating fuels — and the work to manufacture and install the devices needed to utilize them — support Vermont’s economy and create and sustain good jobs.

The Weatherization Assistance Program page on the Southeastern Vermont Community Action (SEVCA) website claims that the national program for low-income people from the U.S. Department of Energy “supports nearly 25,000 direct and indirect jobs within related industries.”

Data shows weatherization works. According to SEVCA’s research, the energy savings “equates to a 23-percent reduction in primary heating fuel use” for each home that undergoes the process.

Paying for it

While Gov. Peter Shumlin is a “big supporter” of Button Up Vermont and statewide energy efficiency, says Miller, one of the impediments to achieving the state’s goal of increased energy efficiency is the state itself.

“We are not on track right now,“ Miller says. “We need more money. The Legislature addressed this last year by a request for either a $2 million appropriation or a move to increase the gross receipts tax by 0.5 percent on electricity and fuel oils to fund [energy efficiency] programs.”

That move failed, but Miller says that “we’ll try again this year.”

Another challenge to increasing awareness and participation is conspicuous consumption. For middle- and upper-income Vermonters who can afford full weatherization, Miller says “The cost is big, but there’s nothing to show off.”

“‘Come look at the new insulation in my attic’ doesn’t have the same wow factor as ‘Come swim in my new pool,’” she says.

A common misperception of the process of weatherization, and how to pay for it, poses an additional challenge to the state’s energy-efficiency mandate, especially for lower- and middle-income residents, advocates say.

Few Vermonters can afford to tear down their drafty 18th- and 19th-century homes and replace them with newly built, fully efficient, passive solar homes.

But thicker walls, modern cellulose insulation, and triple-pane south-facing windows add up to a house that requires, on average, 75 percent less energy to heat (and cool) than a comparable conventional home, according to figures cited in “SUPERhouse!,” the recent film by East Calais’ Jeff Wager.

Even if cost weren’t an issue, many wouldn’t want to give up their older homes full of the architectural splendor that says “New England.” Plus, local historical societies and preservation groups might have a thing or two to say about the loss of the state’s beautiful buildings.

Not all-or-nothing

One of the messages Button Up Vermont’s organizers want to stress is, energy efficiency isn’t an all-or-nothing proposition.

Any effort is better than no effort at all, they say, and simple solutions — some with low costs — abound: install digital thermostats, fill in holes and cracks in cellar floors, insulate attics with spray foam and cellulose, or make cloth “snakes” to put on the floor against a drafty door.

When the price tag starts to creep up, financial assistance is available for those who need it, and incentives are available for those who can afford it but might need some extra convincing.

For low-income Windham County residents, SEVCA says it “provides such services as state-of-the-art energy audits, insulation and air sealing, heating system improvements, and other energy-saving measures.”

For Vermonters earning below 80 percent of the median income, the Windham & Windsor Housing Trust (WWHT) offers a “Rehab Loan Fund,” financed by the Vermont Community Development Program.

This program provides low-cost loans to make repairs necessary to bring homes up to code “and make them safe places to live,” according to the organization’s informational pamphlet.

A staff rehabilitation specialist inspects the home and determines which repairs are necessary, then works with the homeowner to “secure quotes from reliable contractors” and provides project management throughout the construction process.

WWHT finances the project at a “low interest rate,” and loan payments are returned to the fund, “making them available for future homeowners in need of home repair.”

The HEAT Squad offers “above-income” Vermonters assistance with weatherizing their homes.

Whitney says, “There’s no income requirement, and we focus on incentives. We’ve partnered with Efficiency Vermont, and other organizations, to reduce the energy audit cost to $100. The market value for this is $400-$500.

“We have energy advisors on staff to help with technical questions, and we help them think through the process, chunking the project down into doable steps.”

Whitney has personal experience with the benefits of weatherization, and energy efficiency.

“I owned my home for 14 years, and I did my first audit in 2009. I’ve done one every year since.”

For him, Button Up Vermont day is a perfect opportunity to clean up the energy efficiency of the house, much as Vermonters clean up the roadsides for Green Up Vermont Day each spring.

“Let’s have a day of action where we’re going to do something,” Whitney says. “Talk to each other, help your neighbors, take out the a/c, and put up the storm windows.”

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Photo 2

Courtesy photo

Johanna Miller

Originally published in The Commons issue #277 (Wednesday, October 22, 2014). This story appeared on page A4.

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